Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

A Year of COVID by Broadway

Exactly one year ago, I picked up my daughter from her university apartment in Baltimore to drive to NYC, pick up her twin brother, and depart the city to wait out the passing of the novel coronavirus. Exactly one year ago, Broadway went dark for what was to be a brief, 32-day intermission while we “flattened the curve.” We were all on edge. Looking back, we were nowhere near the precipice we would soon find ourselves on.

The silence of theaters shuttered, microphones muted, and orchestra chairs empty is deafening. Anyone who thinks that musical theater is all fluff isn’t paying attention. Broadway’s musicals take us to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, tell the truth about life’s dark side, and transport us to places we could never imagine on our own. We could each chart our own COVID journeys in the epic music of Broadway. Here’s mine:

1. One Day More, Les Miserables. Grand saga. Historic proportions. One day more / Another day, another destiny / This never-ending road to Calvary… Persevering through adversity and uncertainty, Jean Valjean – villain and hero – takes us on a journey of death, birth, life, love, hope – it’s all here. Les Misérables opened in 1987 and closed after 6,680 performances in 2003. Les Mis is a drama of life tumbled and transformed by macro events of history. In this case, the French Revolution. For us, the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone impacted; some more than others. Then and now, as the strife, dislocation, uncertainty and loss grew, so did the mental health burden. Drawing down emotional and psychological reserves, I have known days of feeling disoriented and despairing. I have had days of not knowing what day it is. And I have had to dig deep to find stores of grit and resilience. One Day More…

2. You will be Found, Dear Evan Hansen. This musical is an extraordinary story of suicide and a community reverberating in the wake of tragedy. It is also a story of feeling all alone with our mental health struggles: Have you ever felt like nobody was there? / Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere? / Have you ever felt like you could disappear? / Like you could fall, and no one would hear? When people develop mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders, feeling all alone is common and crippling. It also increases risk of suicide. Over the course of the pandemic, we have all had to pull back from being with each other in person. Zoom has been a godsend, but it has its limits. The escalation of mental health symptoms have been well documented. Accessing care and community support at these challenging times can be lifesaving. In the words of Evan Hansen, Even when the dark comes crashing through / When you need a friend to carry you / And when you’re broken on the ground / You will be found.

3. Reindeers are Better than People, Frozen. Let’s face it, at moments during this pandemic, we have all had moments of loving our four-legged friends more than the peeps in our pod! For most of us, it is a dog or cat, but for the really lucky ones, like Kristoff in Frozen, it is a reindeer. A wealth of research demonstrates that animal companions are good for our mental health and well-being. Pets provide love, affection, loyalty, comfort, security, familiarity, attention. Playing with animals can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, particularly in stressful situations. For individuals with enduring mental health conditions, pets can provide a sense of security and routine. No wonder dog adoptions and sales have soared during this pandemic. I will be forever indebted to my four-legged friend for her companionship this year, even if she is a dog and not a reindeer.

4. Defying Gravity, Wicked. This most famous song closes the first act of one of the longest running Broadway musicals ever. It is the story of Elphaba who grows up being resented and avoided by people due to her (green) skin color. Her life dream is to work for the Wizard, a revered figure in Oz. If he accepts her, the rest of the world will, too. But that was not to be. Elphaba sees the Wizard for what he is, she exposes him, and he takes revenge by claiming she is a Wicked Witch. Defying Gravity is a duet between Elphaba and her friend, Glinda who wants Elphaba to lay low and not cause a ruckus for fear of potential fallout. Elphaba cannot stay silent and submit to the social injustice and abuse of power. And nobody in all of Oz / No Wizard that there is or was / Is ever gonna bring me down. When I hear these lyrics, images of thousands of Americans – and people around the world – taking to the streets this year to march in solidarity against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement pass across my mind. Defying the status quo. Defying gravity.

5. Seasons of Love, Rent the Musical. Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes / How do you measure? Measure a year? / In daylights, In sunsets, In midnights, In cups of coffee / In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife? How do we measure this past year? In masks? In hand sanitizer? In sirens and lives lost? In quiet conversations? Rent The Musical takes place during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is the story of a virus run amok causing gargantuan loss and tragedy. It is also the story of individuals finding love, healing, and hope in unexpected community and surprising connection. Times of social upheaval invite us to reflect; to focus on what matters. Many times this year I felt choked up by the way people stepped up – banging pots and ringing church bells at 7 pm to express gratitude to frontline health workers; volunteering time on hotlines; preparing meals for first responders. Acts of gratitude, generosity, and kindness are good for our mental health. Maybe they can also help us measure this year.

Upon receiving the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner said that it is the work of the artist to lift up people’s lives and help them endure. Thank you Broadway for doing just that year after year.

And for those who may be feeling like you are hitting the “pandemic wall,” I refer you to the latest column from Tracy of the Tracy Challenge for some good laughs. Also good for our mental health.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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